The summer I learned about baseball, I also learned about curses. I was four and had been stationed at my grandmother’s red brick house for the duration of the summer. She lived in South Bend, Indiana, in a small, neat neighborhood across from an endless cornfield, and few things mattered more than Notre Dame football, Chicago Cubs baseball, and Indiana University basketball.
Every afternoon, I rolled on the floor of her living room, mesmerized by the fluffy carpet too short to braid but long enough to rake my fingers through, and listened to Harry Caray preach the religion of the Chicago Cubs. I bought in, hard. Ryan Sandberg was my savior, Mark Grace an angel in uniform, and the St. Louis Cardinals were devils roaming the earth seeking destruction. Life was simple.
That summer, the Cubs were the champions of my heart. Grandma would sit in her blue velveteen recliner, and I would bop and roll around the room and cheer or groan as the situation called. You’re blind, ump! He was safe! He was out! That was a strike! That was a ball! I knew little about baseball but, like every sideline fan, I was clearly an expert. When the game got really tight and an especially hated player was up to bat, Grandma and I pulled out the curse.
“Chitty-ba-ba, chitty-ba-ba, chitty-ba-ba,” we would chant while shaking our hands at the screen. The “Chitty-ba-ba” is not to be trifled with. It is an ancient Irish incantation used to summon evil spirits, used only in dire sporting situations—bottom of the 9 th inning, or if the bases were loaded, or if the hitter was batting over .350. The rules of chitty-ba-ba were unwritten, but known all the same. In basketball, you used it every time an opposing player was at the foul line; in football, at every fourth down, touchdown or field goal attempt; and of course, in discretionary situations. When did a situation warrant a chitty-ba-ba? You just knew.
Like every good Irish Catholic in South Bend, my grandma went to daily noon mass at St. Joseph’s, where Father Wayne absolved her of sin and gave her Holy Communion. That summer, I also went to daily noon mass at St. Joseph’s, where Father Wayne looked at me skeptically and blessed me ardently.
“Why don’t I get to eat the special bread like you Grandma?”
“Because you’re mother’s a heathen and she’s turned her back on God.”
“Am I a heathen?”
“Probably. But there’s still time for you.”
Grandma was not a heathen. She did have a penchant for watching soap operas and reading the National Enquirer, and she loved to bet me on what color Vanna’s dress would be every night on Wheel of Fortune (I always guessed blue; she always won), but to even out the scales, she put her children in Catholic parochial schools for the duration and voted for all the Kennedys she could. She lit candles at mass and went to confession; she prayed the rosary and guilted her wayward daughter about raising children outside of the church. But the ancient stories of stones and lakes of Ireland she heard as a girl never left her. Tales of druids yielding magic and poets casting spells soaked into her skin and mixed with stories of man and woman being cast out of a magical garden and a righteous man losing all his wealth on a bet between God and Satan. Curses are curses, after all.
Twenty-five years after my initial indoctrination into baseball, 2008 looked to be a promising year for the Cubs. The team had made the playoffs the year before and followed up their success by starting the year with a win over their division rival, St. Louis. Harry Caray died in 1998, and my grandma followed him soon after, finding very little left to live for. (Harry, Grandma, if only you could have waited twenty more years to see your Cubs win it all.) The last time I visited with her, I made sure to catch her up on all the happenings in Genoa City (Jack was with Nikki, but Nick and Sharon were on the outs, she could totally do better anyway, but for the sake of the children . . . ) and to let her know I had kept chitty-ba-baing those lousy Cardinals. She died at peace, I believe.
Back to 2008. Hope was emerging as a banner in the country, springing forth on lips everywhere I went. Hope felt good. In turn, my belly was swollen with a baby, and a general sense of renewal had taken hold.
Summer. My daughter came and she was perfect, a tiny replica of me. She was cozy and baby fingers and tiny feet and adorable hats and a birthmark in the middle of her forehead marking her as a foreign princess merely deigning to visit this land. Two days at home of bliss and smiles and cuddles and no sleep, but the good kind, and then: She stopped eating. Then: She turned gray. Then: The doctor said, I don’t like the color of your baby. Then: an ambulance to the children’s hospital with blue and red lights and my head swirling and my breast leaking. And then: The backdoor opened to a team of masked doctors in green robes who all knew my name and her name and whisked her away. A green army stole my baby.
For five days I wandered the halls of the hospital, marked by the orange and purple wristbands that meant: Mother of sick of the sickest babies, give her anything she wants. Soup? Coffee? Tea? Cookie? Book? Blanket? Try a breathing baby. I’ll take one of those. And I ruminated: Does cursing beget being cursed? Had I brashly yielded a power unchecked, unaware of the consequences? Had someone, somewhere, cursed me back?
Death now swirled around my baby, a cloud moving in and out and around her with every shallow, assisted breath, its wispy tentacles latching on and then letting go, latching on, waiting for its triumphant moment.
Those hospital days of sitting in hard chairs disguised as soft, wandering halls simply to be busy, napping more than sleeping, the irrational side of my brain fired. What was truth, reality, or belonging to an all-together different realm became indistinguishable; if it helped me create order out of a scatterplot of random events, I grasped hold of it. I felt cursed and so I was, whether I believed I deserved it or it befell me by chance.
But then: A green army saved my baby. They cheated fate. Somehow, though death left its fingerprints all over her, I did hold my breathing baby in my arms a week later. I sloughed off the purple band that marked me as grieved, the orange band that marked me pitied, and took my replicate home. That fall, I watched the Cubs clinch a playoff berth with a 5-4 win over the Cardinals as I nursed my daughter against my skin.
But 2016 was different. In September of 2016, the country was upside down; the Cubs had the best record in all of baseball. It was also the month death made a return visit to my baby girl. It seemed we just couldn’t escape.
In baseball lore, there have been two main curses teams have had to contend with. The “Curse of the Bambino” caused the Red Sox to go eighty-six years without a World Series win, despite four league championship series wins. The Red Sox finally broke the curse in 2004 with a sweep of, thank goodness, those horrible Cardinals, in the World Series.
The second curse afflicted my Cubs. The “Curse of the Billy Goat” was powerful, pronounced in 1945 by tavern-owner (and apparent goat lover), Billy “Billy Goat” Sianis. After P. K. Wrigley himself banned Sianis from bringing his pet goat Murphy into the stadium on account of the goat’s smell, Sianis cursed the Cubs and sent a telegram to Wrigley with the phrase “Who stinks now?” Since Wrigley banned Murphy the goat, Sianis’s curse held. The Cubs have stunk ever since. And many goats have been abandoned at the front gates of Wrigley field to remind everyone why.
By 2016, my daughter had been breathing for eight straight years on her own—in, out, in, out—and I had grown complacent with those breath sounds. Taken them for granted. Forgotten the miracle of how the lungs pull in oxygen, trap it with fingers extended, move it magically through membrane walls to a chest pump, a muscle machine right in the middle of our chest, ready to send it throughout our bodies on little surfboard cells so we can think and drink coffee and drive in traffic. Her existence had ceased to be miraculous.
Less than miraculous, mundane even. Six years of her snug body sleeping right up against me, kicking me every single night before she finally acquiesced to braving her own bed; six years of force-feeding any sort of meat or vegetable or grain into her before finally realizing I was raising a small French person and that resistance was futile—fruit and cheese only it would be. Eight years of buckling and unbuckling and hating car seats with vitriol. Eight years of wondering if I was doing anything right.
When the mundane had overtaken the miraculous, the death curse snuck back in. I have this suspicion that once death touches you, it leaves its scent to make it easier for it to find you again. My question now is, how does one break that curse? Or is it the one curse that can’t be broken?
My daughter survived death that day. Another ambulance, another set of people looking at me with the saddest eyes. The fighting, then recovery, took months and changed her. She’s aware of her mortality in a way her friends aren’t. She has become a more reserved version of her former self. I watch her friends laugh and move with abandon and see her hesitancy to engage.
I want to tell her, I’ve got you. I will watch for death coming back so you can be free. I will be vigilant; I will put on my rally cap for you. I will be a sentry at your bedroom door, a volunteer at every school you attend, a fish under the water in every lake and ocean you swim, a guard on every date. I will stop death in its tracks and it will have no longer have a hold on you. I want to mean this; and if the Cubs can win the World Series, anything is possible.